Biden administration considers public health emergency

A Northwell Health employee holds a monkeypox vaccine at Cherry Grove in Fire Island, New York, where monkeypox vaccines were introduced on July 14, 2022.

James Carbone | News | Getty Images

The Biden administration is considering declaring a public health emergency in response to the growing monkeypox outbreak, a senior White House health official said Friday.

Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House Covid Response Coordinator, said the administration is looking into how declaring a public health emergency could support the US response to the outbreak.

“As far as I know, there is no final decision on this,” Jha said. “It’s an ongoing but very active conversation at HHS.”

Minister of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra has the power to declare a public health emergency under the Public Health Act. The declaration can help mobilize federal financial assistance to respond to the outbreak.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 2,500 cases of monkeypox have been reported in the United States to date in 44 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico. The largest outbreaks occur in New York, California, Illinois, Florida, the District of Columbia and Georgia.

The Biden administration’s response to the outbreak has come under scrutiny by Congress as the number of infections has risen. Fifty House Democrats, in a letter to President Joe Biden this week, urged the administration to declare a public health emergency in response to the outbreak.

Senate Health Committee Chair Patty Murray, in a letter to HHS Secretary Becerra, said she was concerned about the US response to the outbreak. Murray said some patients and health care providers do not have the information and resources they need to test for monkeypox and respond to the outbreak.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said last week that demand for vaccines exceeds available supply. Many people struggle to get vaccinated due to long queues outside clinics.

To date, the US has sent more than 300,000 doses of the monkeypox vaccine called Jynneos to city and state health departments, Jha told reporters on Friday. The FDA is in the process of authorizing an additional 786,000 doses to be stored at Bavarian Nordic’s facility in Denmark for distribution in the US.

Jha said that some of these shots are already on sale and will arrive in the US this week and next. Doses can be delivered to city and state health departments after receiving FDA clearance, Jah said. The US has also ordered another 5 million doses, to be delivered by mid-2023, according to HHS.

Monkeypox is mainly spread through skin-to-skin contact during sex. Right now, men who have sex with men are at the highest risk of infection, but anyone can contract the virus through close physical contact. Usually people recover in two to four weeks, but the virus causes very painful lesions. No deaths have been reported in the US

The CDC on Friday confirmed the first two cases of monkeypox in children. One case is a toddler from California, and the other is an infant not residing in the US. The cases are unrelated, and the children likely contracted the virus through transmission within their household, according to the CDC.

The children are doing well and are receiving the antiviral treatment tecovirimat, according to the CDC. Dr. Jennifer McQuiston, a spokesperson for the CDC, told reporters on Friday that the health agency is working to make it easier for doctors to prescribe tecovirimat to patients.

Prescribing tecovirimat for monkeypox comes with an extra layer of bureaucracy right now because it’s only approved by the FDA for treating smallpox. Monkeypox belongs to the same family of viruses as smallpox, but causes milder disease.

McQuiston said more than 97% of monkeypox patients who provide demographic information are gay, bisexual or other men who have sex with men.

“While this outbreak is spreading on a certain social network right now, I think we have communicated from the beginning that there may be cases that can occur outside of these networks, and that we need to be vigilant and ready to respond and report this. “, McQuiston told reporters.

The U.S. has the capacity to conduct 80,000 monkeypox tests per week after several commercial labs open this month, according to the CDC. But the tests swab the lesions caused by the virus, which can take weeks to develop from initial exposure. This means that the US probably doesn’t have an accurate picture of how many people are infected, because patients can only get tested when they develop symptoms.

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